I want to begin by saying, I fully support the idea of independent bookstores. They provide not only a place to buy books, but a place to build community. Many independent bookstores hold readings and signings. It is through many of these bookstores that certain poets, throughout the years, have been promoted and recognized. It is a vital part of the literary community.
Having said that, there aren't these kind of independent bookstores everywhere. I've never lived in a really big city or a very literary city, so I've read about the amazing happenings at independent bookstores, but I've rarely personally witnessed them.
All of the articles I have read on the topic, praise independent bookstores and demonize Amazon. This is easy to do. We love stories about the little guy or the underdog. We like to hate big business (even while most of us still support it with our money). And when I'm saying "we," I'm including myself. I don't enjoy going to big box stores. I think big business, as a whole, is hurting our country. But it is also very easy to demonize the big guy and make the issue seem very black and white.
In the case of independent bookstores vs. Amazon, the issue isn't that black and white. Amazon is a big company and they can sell items for much cheaper prices than a local independent bookstore and that, in turn, can greatly hurt these stores and put them out of business. They do seem to be wanting to control the selling of almost everything. This is probably not going to be a great thing, if they fully succeed. Yes, I understand these issues, and I know, like most big businesses, Amazon has some questionable practices.
On the other hand, I have to consider my own experience and factor this into the equation. I grew up in a small Indiana city as a gay boy who wanted to be a poet. The only independent bookstores in my town were Christian bookstores. We didn't even have a big box bookstore like Barnes and Noble or Borders. When I discovered Amazon, I felt like I had discovered the world. Amazon gave me access to books I would never have been able to find (probably in the entire state I lived in). Through Amazon, I could buy poetry books, classic gay literature, and new gay books. These books helped shape me into the person I am today and the poet I've become.
I went college in an even smaller rural town in Indiana with even less access to many books. I relied on Amazon through college to provide me with a window into a broader more accepting world. In grad school, I also relied on Amazon, partially for the same reasons. Tallahassee, FL isn't exactly booming with access to literature. I also had very little money as a grad student and Amazon gave me a place I could get more bang for my buck (besides, compared to the practices of most college bookstores, Amazon wins in my mind).
When I read these articles, I often feel that these writers forget that the middle of the country exists or that the South exists or some people live in small, rural areas. I've never lived in New York City or San Francisco. Every place I've lived, it has been very hard to find the books I want to read or need to read. In some cases, I could order the books from the presses themselves, which I do sometimes. Other times, the books are no longer available through the presses and there are few other options. When I attend readings, I often purchase the books at the reading, which helps support the author and the press. This again is not always an option.
I'm not saying Amazon is perfect or we shouldn't be concerned or that it isn't hurting independent bookstores, but I am saying that this issue is more complicated than many seem willing to admit. Amazon does serve areas where people don't easily have access to a variety of books.
The world is changing. I don't want to see all independent bookstores wiped out, but I do want some young gay teen in rural Indiana to be able to buy the books he needs/wants to read. We can demonize Amazon all we want, but it is winning the battle because it can offer a world of books to anyone in the world. I don't think the solution is simply to ignore that or to demonize that. There is some good here.
I don't have all the answers, but I wanted to write this post to continue the discussion and to gray the issue just a bit. We need to find a balance. We need independent bookstores. Those of you who live in areas with great ones, should be supporting them. We also need access to keep people reading and engaging in the literary world. Right now, these two seem at odds with each other, and I hope eventually a bridge can be built.
-Stephen (2 Cents)